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Rockport’s Wagner (and Bruckner) Variety Show


Cristian Budu (file photo)
Cristian Budu (file photo)

On Thursday Rockport Chamber Music Festival presented a concert of Richard Wagner’s chamber music in celebration of his 200th birthday, with the addition of Anton Bruckner’s Quintet in F major. Each piece in this heterogeneous program was performed, albeit virtuosically, by a different artist. The result was a pastiche in which talented performers rendered one-work-each of a composer whose primary talents resided mostly in other genres.

The evening began with Cristian Budu performing Wagner’s Album Leaf for Mathilde Wesendonck, the Sonata in A-flat Major. The interpretation was subtle and marvelous, brought off in complete, glistening comfort. As an album leaf, Wagner’s Sonata is not too difficult, it is intended more to flatter its dedicatee than to show a performer’s virtuosity or to obtain for the audience some sense of higher artistic expression. To see it played by a pianist with the talent to interpret the most difficult pieces of Wagner’s father in law (evidence here) left me wishing that Budu had something else to give us.

This was followed Wagner’s song cycle, the beautiful Wesendonck Lieder, sung by Naomi O’Connell and accompanied by Keun-A Lee on piano. In her performance, O’Connell brought a vibrato restrained by a refreshing subtlety. In the third song, “Im Treibhaus” the way she gently guided her mezzo up to the song’s soft highpoint, at “…Steiget aufwärts, süβer Duft” (…you rise upwards, sweet perfume), created an effect that was simply mesmerizing. Further, it measured perfectly with her rendering of the fifth song’s dark and Tristanesque ending “in die Gruft” (In the grave). Throughout the piece, Lee’s accompaniment brought her own extraordinary sense of musicianship, balancing an idea of the symphonic with the more immediately intimate expressive power of the chamber. At the end of the fifth song, I double checked the program for her performance of the “Liebestod” but sadly, it was not there.

Instead, next up were George and Andrew Li playing Otto Singer’s arrangement of Siegfried’s Idyll for four hands. At first I was somewhat concerned that the performance would become an empty display of these wunderkinder. However, the arrangement focused not on technical virtuosity so much as intrinsic musicality, a trait of which these brothers share a more than generous portion. Unfortunately, because a large measure of its beauty depends on the subtle shading of Wagner’s chamber orchestra the piece doesn’t translate well onto the piano. (Even Glen Gould eschewed his own piano arrangement of the piece for a chamber orchestra version.)

After intermission, in what seemed like a completely different concert, the musicians from Manchester Music Festival took the stage to perform Anton Bruckner’s Quintet in F major. This performance was excellent—of particular note was the beauty of the second movement’s peasant dance, and the abruptly shifting character of the finale, which this ensemble brought off with a lively authenticity. Even the infamously symphonic last 17 measures of the finale came off as though it were an organic result of the whole work. The performers were Heather Braun, Joana Genova (violin); Ariel Ruiakov, Scott Woolweaver (viola); and Sophie Shao (cello).

Every time I make the trip to Rockport, even on a workday in rush-hour traffic, it is a worthwhile jaunt; this time was no different. The Shalin Liu has one of the best acoustics in the region, and the performers there are consistently top notch. Like Benjamin Pesetsky (here), I also appreciate the “summer festival spirit of experimentation and collaboration,” but if taken too far, it just becomes a variety show.

See related article here.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I’m curious about this statement: “(Even Glenn Gould eschewed his own piano arrangement of the piece for a chamber orchestra version.)” I know Gould also recorded a (very slow) version in which he conducts a chamber orchestra, but his solo piano recording has also been released and is, I think, very beautiful, if inevitably a shadow of the original. Is there some evidence Gould disavowed this recording?

    Comment by Michael Monroe — June 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm

  2. Perhaps “eschew” is a strong word, but he did apologize for it, saying that “I simply wanted something of Wagner’s that I could play.” Further, just before he died he conducted the chamber arrangement. In both arrangements he took it at a very slow tempo (that I very much enjoy).

    Comment by Joseph E. Morgan — June 16, 2013 at 5:17 pm

  3. Thanks for this lovely review–I’m eager to get to Rockport to hear something.

    Comment by Danielle — June 16, 2013 at 5:33 pm

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